Muldoon's exploration of the connection between poetry and song results in pieces that fall somewhere between the two
Here we go, one more time, with feeling – the old song/poetry debate comes roaring back to life, courtesy of Paul Muldoon. Back in the 1990s, Christopher Ricks stirred it up by applying the techniques of academic literary criticism to the study of Bob Dylan's songs. Paul McCartney has had lyrics published by a leading poetry imprint (Faber), and Tom Waits has recently put out a volume of verse. Last year, Glyn Maxwell argued that it's essentially a sterile debate, with a simple answer: "Bob Dylan and John Keats are at different work. It would be nice never to be asked about this again."
Muldoon used his 2012 Poetry Society lecture – which shares a title with this new collection – to argue for a reconnection between poetry and song. Fair enough: there's a reason why songs have "lyrics"; if you're a bard in antiquity you pluck your lyre and you sing your poem. That shared tradition is by no means confined to the distant past, either – listen, for instance, to Eddi Reader singing Robert Burns, or, indeed, to Muldoon himself performing with his band (or "music collective", as the blurb for this book describes them), Wayside Shrines.
So there's something of an agenda here; though, as Muldoon admitted in these pages recently, he's well aware of the difficulties it raises: "The tradition of reading lyrics on a page is a little bit iffy. Some of us of a certain age will remember lyrics on album sleeves … One took them somewhat seriously, but maybe not completely seriously. I'm a bit conflicted myself." Nonetheless, the project is carried through with typical Muldoonian vim and gusto, from the book's non-standard format (essentially the same proportions as a CD case), to the subtitle on the title page ("Rock Lyrics"), to the blocky, stencil‑style sans font used for the contents (I want to say "track listing"). Curiously, it lends the book something of a country and western feel.
The words, though, are a different matter. Like some post-punk, blues-inflected Cole Porter, Muldoon adopts the manoeuvres of the standard song lyric to access the sort of territory where most mainstream song-writing rarely, if ever, ventures: war in Afghanistan, the US housing bubble, the west's over-reliance on the oil industry, and so on. "Badass Blues", for instance, brings together Charlton Heston, the Jewish crime kingpin Arnold Rothstein, TS Eliot and Albert Einstein, and ends up in Tahrir Square for the Egyptian revolution.
That said, there's also plenty of lovelorn yearning, bittersweet break-ups, and sex and drugs, too. Muldoon, one senses, is never happier than when subverting a cliche, and he has plenty to draw on: phrases such as "so long" and "over you", for example, are picked over, turned round and made to enact the linguistic reversal that concludes several of the pieces.
There's some clever stuff going on, as you'd expect from a writer as sharply playful as Muldoon. After Charlton Heston, the next piece, "Big Twist", references Planet of the Apes; and the 60s singer Eddie Falcon in the previous poem morphs into The Maltese Falcon here. The poem's rolling allusiveness scrolls through Hollywood – Star Wars, Chinatown, Psycho, Blade Runner – to interrogate the mirror-world of American cultural identity, via a conventional love-song trope in which the constructed "you" is as unclear as any could wish for: "Your falling for me that first day / Was the first clue I missed / And that you've loved me all along / Is clearly the big twist".
There are further deliberate slippages of thought in "Black Box", where the aeroplane isn't invented, as everyone thinks, by Wilbur and Orville Wright, but has an oddly essential life of its own: "an airplane flew low over your bed / Concocting itself as it flew / I don't know what happened along the way / To make me come up with you". As for the naming of things, that's more often than not misleading, or a downright lie, the result of a conspiracy of wilful blindness: just as the black box "is often orange or red / That in itself is a clue", so, in "Cleaning Up My Act" "There are no gentlemen / In a gentlemen's club" and "Nothing is a problem / To a problem child". The refrain has a distinctly Cole Porterish tone: "I'm hoping to be filthy rich / That's why I'm cleaning up my act".
Like Porter, Muldoon delights in reaching for an absurd rhyme: "Hegel" and "bagel", say, or "tendency" and "Southend-on-Sea". And at times, the freewheeling juxtapositions of classical or highbrow references with pop culture and Americana do bring the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited to mind: "Delilah was a Delaware dame … As for Jezebel / She put her horse / Before the cartel / And the drug task force / Even the dogs in the street could tell / Jezebel was a Jersey belle".
The difficulty with reading these pieces is that you don't quite know whether to read them as song lyrics – in which case you subconsciously try to supply your own rhythmic beat, even though you can't tell for sure where a syllable might best be sung short or long – or as poetry, in which case you find yourself tripping up on some of the repetitive refrains, and quickly become aware that they don't display anything like the full range of inventiveness of his best verse. Better, perhaps, to listen to them being performed – which, happily, is possible at the Wayside Shrines website, where, as the book's cover says, you can hear "music inspired by these lyrics". Having done so, however, I'm not sure that they're wholly successful as songs, either – their provenance as poetry first makes some of the settings seem awkward, or it may simply be that Muldoon is less practised as a lyricist than as a poet for the page. Well, no doubt there are as many ways of writing a great song as a great poem, but I'm reminded that, when he began writing "Yesterday", Paul McCartney used the words "Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs" as placeholder text before he came up with the final lyrics. Sometimes there's a lot to be said for scrambled eggs.